I sometimes find the music in films almost manipulative. You watch something big and brash, like a Transformers or Avengers, and the aural aim is clear: use the score to generate the required emotional response from the audience. Here’s the hero, BAM BAM BAAAAM. Moment of loss; strings in a minor key. Racing through a jungle, peppering Colombian foliage with bullets? Have some dubstep to pass the time. What stands out for me more these days are films where the music is part of the story, instead of merely underpinning the action. Inception’s slowed-down Non, Je ne regrette rien; Fury Road’s war drums; Tarantino’s torture music. It’s an elevation of the material, a move that takes it to a whole level of blissful enjoyment.
But even the creative musicality of these great films cannot eclipse the groove of Baby Driver. Edgar Wright’s crime story is choreographed like a ballet, where every movement, spin and gunshot is rooted in the music blasting out, and the effect is somewhere approaching pure magic.
The opening ten minutes is the best thing Wright’s ever put to film (and I say that as a life-long fan of his work). And it’s not just the opening chase, although I dare you to find a better symphony of a multi-vehicle pursuit this side of George Miller’s imagination. The scene that follows is a long take of a coffee run, reminiscent of the trip to the corner store in Shaun of the Dead, but here beautifully conducted around Baby’s enjoyment of his chosen track. Wright’s signature cool is in full swing here, guiding actor Ansel Elgort and he dances along the Atlanta street like Fred Astaire’s grinning cousin.
Really, the whole film is Elgort’s show, his delicate portrayed of Baby showing multiple layers of character and nuance. The supporting cast is also on fine form, thanks in no small part by Wright’s self-penned script full of wisecracks and quotable hooks. Kevin Spacey relishes Doc, the organiser of the bank heists and boss to Baby; Jamie Foxx chews through the suitably insane Bats; John Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez make a wonderfully unhinged Bonnie and Clyde; Flea, Jon Bernthal and Lanny Joon fill up the heist gangs perfectly. But it’s Lily James as Baby’s love interest – and eventual catalyst – that adds a softer edge, with a cheeky parlance and delicious Southern accent that’s like music in itself.
The trouble with the narrative, though, is that it struggles to live up to the rest of the movie, especially in the slightly loose middle third. Don’t get me wrong, there’s really nothing here that is bad or even average; it’s just that the interactions are always second fiddle to the raging, pulsing heart of this movie that is its music and movement. The soundtrack here is not just filler; Baby, suffering from tinnitus from an early age, soundtracks his own life with a constant mix of music from his huge collection of iPods. That means that we hear through his ears; the music is the visuals, and vice versa, edited together in a spectacular display of technical filmmaking.
Together with the choreographed chases, both in car and on foot, the resulting film is dizzying in its creativity and precision. There’s so much wish fulfillment here, both in the beautiful cinematography whipping around the vehicles, and also in the stylistic groove of the gun fights (with bullets being fired on the beat, of course). The actors dazzle in star-making turns, even when the narrative slips down a gear. But, even through the sparkle and the cool, it’s the music that defines this experience and potentially ruins every other film you’ll see this year. Edgar Wright has built an amazing film around the mixtape in his head, and background filler tracks just aren’t going to feel good enough any more.